The enduring allure of broody, superpowerless Batman aside, DC has long languished as the unhip, unloved stepchild of comic-book-based cinema. The Marvel Universe has the edge on being edgy, which goes hand-in-hand with attracting the best scriptwriters and directors in the “lightweight fare” end of the movie biz. Actors know that hitching their wagons to the ever-rising Marvel star will make them pop-culture icons and guarantee them steady work for years to come (presuming they’re playing superheroes or supervillains and not redshirts). A DC project is likelier to fizzle at the box office, because the fanbase tends to be greyer at the temples and less passionate. Even the evergreen franchises (see Batman above) are more prone to recasting.
The people who own the DC film rights aren’t going down without a fight, however, as evidenced by the blockbuster introduction in 2017 of a standalone Wonder Woman flick. Its considerable success came in the wake of poor public and critical reception for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), helmed by the same director, Zack Snyder. Then DC floundered again when another Snyder project, Justice League – the whitebread Avengers, if you will – failed to engage the moviegoing public despite the injection of Joss Whedon’s talents both at the screenwriting and postproduction stages. Justice League was named “Biggest Disappointment of the Year” in the Golden Schmoes Awards for 2017.
Can DC Comics’ onscreen presence be salvaged? Its latest iteration, Aquaman, is a high-risk venture on several counts. For one thing, the concept had been shuffled from shelf to shelf at Warner Brothers since at least 2004. For another, the character has long been something of a laughingstock even within the DC universe, his superpowers deemed wimpy and utterly lacking in usefulness outside aquatic environments. The Justice League script had to include an underwater errand in order to get Aquaman – one of the hero band’s founding members, circa 1960 – a little screentime.
But that brief soggy interlude, following on the heels of a cameo in Dawn of Justice, found the spark for a potentially successful Aquaman subfranchise in the inspired casting of Jason Momoa. The half-Hawaiian bodybuilder/model/actor got his start playing a lifeguard in the TV series Baywatch: Hawaii in 1999, establishing a reputation for beefcake roles that led to him being cast as Conan the Barbarian in the ill-fated 2011 reboot. Most fans, however, know Momoa as the guy who played Khal Drogo, the Dothraki warlord to whom Daenerys Targaryen was linked in a brief political marriage during the first season of Game of Thrones.
Drogo was a dour, brutish character who raped his teenaged bride, slaughtered and pillaged his way across the medieval landscape and never laughed except when he was in the process of hacking his rivals to bits. But Momoa’s sculpted torso impressed many Thrones viewers as too sexy for anybody’s shirt, and he has subsequently built his popularity with the fanbase by being friendly and accessible on the ComicCon circuit (his specialty is posing for photos with female fans, pretending to push their husbands/boyfriends away while the women drape themselves adoringly over his tattooed musculature). It’s rare to see a photo of him off-set where Momoa doesn’t have a big grin on his face. He seems to take his fame with a healthy grain of salt: an attribute that, with the comic-geek crowd, usually cultivates demand for additional screen appearances.
Choosing Momoa to portray Aquaman was a brilliant move that goes a long way toward mitigating the new film’s lackluster script, by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, and undisciplined direction by James Wan, best-known for the Saw slasher movie franchise. Although it departs in many directions from DC canon for the character (different origin story/parents/motivations, not to mention losing the blond hair that was an actual plot point in the comics), Aquaman the movie doesn’t have an original storytelling bone in its body. The plot “twists” are exactly what you expect them to be. Opportunities to explore ethical grey areas (the baddies are pushing back against humankind’s pollution of the seas) or connections to classical mythology (a wormhole to a secret undersea realm is located right off the coast of Sicily, same as the maelstrom Charybdis in Homer’s Odyssey) are teased but never followed up. Aquaman is a throwback to the days when comic-book characters and situations were uncomplicated, wholesome, earnest, unironic…dare I say dull? And yet we find ourselves invested in Aquaman/Arthur Curry’s reluctant quest to save Earth’s surface from the Atlanteans and the Atlanteans from themselves.
Much of the credit must go to Momoa’s regular-guy onscreen persona here. He doesn’t go around scowling and flexing his massive biceps; in fact, he’s self-deprecatingly charming and often funny. Arthur loves his mom and dad. There’s even a scene where fans in a bar want a selfie with him. (And for Thronies, there’s a special Easter egg: Aquaman regains consciousness after getting the worse end of a fight, winces, sneers and picks off an herbal poultice covering a deep cut in the exact spot where Khal Drogo suffered the stab wound that festered and killed him, possibly abetted by similar ministrations from a dodgy healer.)
There are some other praiseworthy performances in Aquaman, notably Nicole Kidman as his mother, an exiled Atlantean queen; as noted in these pages regarding his recent portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, Willem Dafoe dignifies any role he takes – even an underwritten one such as Vulko, young Arthur’s aquatic martial arts mentor. Amber Heard is far less impressive as Aquaman’s love interest, the warrior princess Mera; none of her delivery serves to divert one’s attention from her Bozo-the-Clown-red tresses and cheesy costumes that substitute sequins for fishscales. The scariest thing about Aquaman’s nemesis, his imperialistic half-brother Orm, is also a hairdo: Patrick Wilson’s slicked-down, platinum-colored French twist.
Aquaman is a very long movie (143 minutes) with plenty of visually extravagant set pieces that might be worth the extra bucks to see in 3-D and/or IMAX, including seascapes densely populated by bioluminescent creatures evoking the planet Pandora in Avatar, plus rooftop chases and a subterranean desert temple right out of an Indiana Jones movie. It’s got some rip-roaringly good sea monsters and spectacular underwater battles. The CGI is sometimes enchanting, more often verging on tacky (at least in 2-D). And yet it qualifies as a genuine crowdpleaser. Disengage your intellect and critical faculties before submerging and you may find yourself having an unexpectedly enjoyable time.